IT'S STILL NOT known which or how many Americans have been secretly targeted by the National Security Agency's domestic surveillance operations in the past several years, or whether abuses occurred. But we do know that a parallel clandestine operation by the Pentagon to collect intelligence about domestic threats gathered and stored information on innocent citizens who never should have been watched. The story is instructive and alarming.
A database managed by a secretive Pentagon intelligence agency called Counterintelligence Field Activity, or CIFA, was found last month to contain reports on at least four dozen antiwar meetings or protests, many of them on college campuses. Ten peace activists who handed out peanut butter and jelly sandwiches outside Halliburton's headquarters in Houston in June 2004 were reported as a national security threat. So were people who assembled at a Quaker meeting house in Lake Worth, Fla., or protested military recruiters at sites such as New York University, the State University of New York and campuses of the University of California at Berkeley and at Santa Cruz.
The protesters were written up under a Pentagon program called Talon, which is supposed to collect raw data on threats to defense facilities in the United States. CIFA, an agency created just under four years ago that now includes nine directorates and more than 1,000 employees, is charged with working to prevent terrorist attacks. Instead, hidden from public and congressional scrutiny, it has repeated the same abuses once committed against war protesters and civil rights activists of the 1960s. In addition to compiling information on Americans who were peaceful political dissenters rather than terrorists, the agency retained reports in its database well beyond a 90-day limit -- a standard adopted in response to the Vietnam-era excesses.
The activity came to light only because of aggressive reporting by, among others, The Post's Walter Pincus, Newsweek and NBC News, which obtained a list of more than 1,500 "suspicious incidents" included in the CIFA-managed database. After the improprieties were made public, Pentagon spokesmen acknowledged that mistakes had been made, and they promised to clean up the database and give Defense Department intelligence personnel a refresher course on the regulations. Ensuring that the corrective action takes place -- and that further steps are taken to prevent intelligence-gathering on domestic political activity -- ought to be the job of the congressional intelligence and armed-services committees, which have yet to hold a hearing to review CIFA or its activities.
The larger lesson is that domestic intelligence operations by security-conscious government agencies, even when necessary and well-intentioned, can easily get out of hand and violate the fundamental rights of Americans. After the abuses of the 1960s and '70s, Congress passed the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act precisely to ensure that there would be an independent monitor, in the form of a secret court, on the government's domestic surveillance. That is the law that President Bush bypassed in authorizing the NSA to monitor the communications of Americans. We believe that the president's decision violated the law and exceeded his powers as president. If it did not also lead to the wrongful targeting of some American citizens, then the NSA operation would be a historical anomaly.